Hypertrophy Training Program

10 Training Variables For Maximum Muscle Growth

It’s no secret that weight training is key to gaining muscle. But not all weight lifting programs get the same results.

If you’ve hit a plateau in your muscle-building efforts, it’s possible that your training program is not optimized. And the key to making new progress is a specialized hypertrophy training program.

In this article, I teach you the principles of hypertrophy training that can help you unlock new gains. Including the 10 training variables you need to optimize for muscle growth.

Hypertrophy Training

What Is Hypertrophy Training?

First, hypertrophy simply means muscle fibers grow in size. So hypertrophy training is a workout program designed specifically to maximize muscle growth.

As you probably know, muscle growth requires the use of heavy resistance training exercises. So there is a lot of overlap between hypertrophy and strength training. Yet there are also significant differences between the two.

Hypertrophy vs Strength Training

The main difference between hypertrophy and strength training is what they prioritize. Hypertrophy training prioritizes muscle building. While strength training prioritizes power.

Hypertrophy Training = Bodybuilding

The goal of hypertrophy training is to increase muscle size with symmetry and proportion to create an aesthetic physique. Bodybuilding is beneficial to individuals primarily interested in improving their appearance.

Your strength will increase as muscle size increases, particularly for beginners. But strength gains will not be as significant as would be achieved through powerlifting.

Strength Training = Powerlifting

On the other hand, the goal of strength training is to maximize power and move as much weight as possible. Powerlifting is beneficial for athletes in strength-based sports.

Muscle size will increase, particularly for beginners. However, muscle growth will not be maximized. This is because it’s not always necessary for a muscle to get bigger in order to get stronger.

Hypertrophy vs Strength Training

Figure 1. A cartoon generalization of the outcomes of hypertrophy vs strength training.

This is not to say that one training style is better than the other. In fact, it’s wise to incorporate elements of both styles in your training program.

And you should even transition between periods where you focus on growth and periods where you focus on strength. This is called periodization.

Scientific Principles Of Hypertrophy Training

Before we get into the training variables that optimize hypertrophy, it’s important to understand how muscle growth occurs.

Changes in muscle size are the result of three different physical responses to resistance training; mechanical overload, muscle adaptation, and metabolic stress1.

Mechanical Overload

First and foremost, the purpose of weight lifting is to subject your muscles to mechanical overload. Which is simply a force they are not used to.

This overload is achieved by adding resistance to the muscles through their working range of motion. That is, putting the muscle under tension while it is stretched and contracted2.

Over time, the load and/or intensity must change to continue getting the desired response. This is known as progressive overload.

Hypertrophy Training Overload

Figure 2. Milo of Greek mythology was said to lift a calf every day until it grew into a bull. This story is the perfect representation of progressive overload and muscle adaptation.

Muscle Adaptation

With mechanical overload, muscle fibers are damaged at a microscopic level. This results in an inflammatory response similar to when your body fights off infection.

Except, in this case, your body sends specialized cells to repair the damaged muscle tissue. As a precaution against future damage, your muscles are rebuilt slightly larger than before3.

Metabolic Stress

Another mechanism of muscle hypertrophy involves metabolic stress4. This is a physiologic response to the increase in metabolites such as lactic acid. As well as the increase in catabolic hormones like cortisol and glucagon.

The metabolic and hormonal stress of the workout activates the sympathetic nervous system. Also known as the “fight or flight” response, in which cells break down.

Like a pendulum, your nervous system is primed to shift back to an anabolic state. This is the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response associated with cell regeneration and growth.

Hypertrophy Training

Figure 3. A graphical representation of the catabolic to anabolic pendulum effect brought about by metabolic stress and proper intervention during the “anabolic window”.

How To Train For Hypertrophy

Earlier I mentioned training variables that can be manipulated to get the desired outcome of hypertrophy. Those variables include load, reps, sets, volume, split, rest, exercises, tempo, technique, and failure.

In this section, I’ll explain how to adjust each of these variables to maximize muscle hypertrophy.

Load

In resistance training, load is the amount of weight being lifted. Often, load is described in terms of a percentage of your one-rep max or 1RM.

Both strength and hypertrophy training require the use of relatively heavy weights. Specifically, a load of greater than 65% of your 1RM is needed to produce gains in size and strength1.

Rep Range

If you don’t know your 1RM, that’s okay. There is a direct correlation between load and reps. That is, the higher the load, the lower the number of repetitions you can perform.

Moreover, the load and number of reps performed directly affect your muscle’s response to training. Low reps (1-5) result in maximum strength gains. While medium reps (6-12) result in maximum hypertrophy.

Reps % 1RM Training Outcome
1 100% Strength
2 97% Strength
3 94% Strength
4 92% Strength
5 89% Strength
6 86% Hypertrophy (Functional)
7 83% Hypertrophy (Functional)
8 81% Hypertrophy (Functional)
9 78% Hypertrophy (Functional)
10 75% Hypertrophy (Functional)
11 73% Hypertrophy (Functional)
12 71% Hypertrophy (Functional)
13 70% Hypertrophy (Non-Functional)
14 68% Hypertrophy (Non-Functional)
15 67% Hypertrophy (Non-Functional)

Table 1. The approximate number of repetitions that can be performed at various percentages of 1RM and the associated training benefit.

It should also be noted that with 12-15 reps you achieve what’s called non-functional hypertrophy. This is an increase in muscle size without the associated increase in strength.

However, anything over 15 reps results in training for muscular endurance. With little to no effect on muscle strength or size.

For a hypertrophy training program, most sets should be 6-12 reps. But it’s still good to include a few sets with lower reps (3-5) and a few sets with higher reps (12-15) to stimulate as many muscle fibers as possible.

Sets

Consecutive reps with no rest in between are called a set. Multiple studies show that performing 4-6 sets for each exercise results in 83% more muscle hypertrophy compared to a single set5.

Hypertrophy Training Number Of Sets

Figure 4. The hypertrophic effect associated with various rep ranges. Adapted from Krieger et al.

In addition, your workout should include anywhere from 5 to 8 exercises. When you multiply the number of sets and exercises, you get the total sets per workout.

For example, if you do 5 sets of 6 different exercises, that’s 5 x 6 = 30 sets. I recommend you target 24-32 sets per workout when your goal is hypertrophy.

Training Volume

When you multiply the number of reps by the weight lifted for each set, you get what’s called training volume. This is the total weight lifted in a workout.

Training Volume = Total Sets x Reps x Load

As an example, let’s compare strength and hypertrophy workouts that both consist of 25 total sets. Since the load and reps differ between these workouts, they result in very different training volumes.

  Strength Hypertrophy
Load (% 1RM) 88% 75%
Reps per Set 5 10
Total Sets 25 25
Training Volume 24,750 42,188

Table 2. Training volume for typical strength vs hypertrophy programs. Based on an average 1RM of 225 lbs.

As you can see in Table 2, even when the number of sets is the same, a hypertrophy workout results in 70% more training volume due to the higher rep range.

It’s this increase in total work that produces more metabolic stress and a greater anabolic response6. In theory, more anabolism results in more muscle hypertrophy.

However, there is a point of diminishing returns where the increase in volume creates so much stress that you can’t recover before the next workout. Sort of like digging a hole you can’t fill back in.

In order to prevent unwanted stress, you should train hard then get out of the gym and relax. Ideally, your workouts should be focused and intense for 45-75 minutes.

If you’re in the gym for more than 90 minutes, you’re probably overdoing it or just talking too much! Remember, you can train for a long time or you can train hard, but you can’t do both.

Training Split

Another aspect of training volume is how many days per week you work out. As well as what muscle groups you train each day. This is referred to as your workout split or training split.

The more days per week you train, the faster you will see results. But working out too hard too often decreases recovery and can even lead to overtraining.

One of the best ways to maximize workout frequency without hurting recovery is by training individual muscle groups in each workout. This is jokingly referred to as the “bro split workout” due to its popularity among young male bodybuilders.

Despite the moniker, studies show that the bro split reduces the risk of overtraining compared to a full body 3 day split7. Therefore, you should train one or two muscle groups per workout, 5 or 6 days per week to maximize hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy Training Workout Split

Figure 5: Comparison of 5-day single muscle split and 3-day total body split in terms of cumulative muscle damage (predicted levels of creatine kinase). Notice that muscle damage is additive even when training different muscles, but levels off by day 4. Adapted from Giechaskiel.

Rest Periods

A training variable that often gets overlooked is the amount of time you rest between sets. Rest periods can be categorized as short (<1 minute), medium (1-2 minutes), and long (>2 minutes).

Studies show that resting for 3-5 minutes results in maximum power generation on the next set8. While resting for 1 minute or less creates a larger anabolic response to training.

Hypertrophy training requires that you find the sweet spot between long and short rest periods. For most of your sets, I recommend resting for 90 seconds to 2 minutes to increase muscle growth

On the sets you use >90% 1RM, it’s okay to rest for 3 minutes or more. And for lower load sets, you can shorten it to as low as 60 seconds.

Exercise Selection

The type of exercises you perform also have an impact on the results you get from your training. One way to differentiate exercises is by the number of joints they use.

A compound exercise uses multiple joints. While an isolation exercise uses a single joint. For hypertrophy training, it’s important to include both compound and isolation exercises.

Compound Exercises

Muli-joint exercises recruit a larger number of muscle groups. For example, a barbell squat involves the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and trunk.

This results in greater power generation and initiates a stronger anabolic response. But it doesn’t overload any single muscle. Below are some examples of compound exercises:

  • Squats
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Pull-Ups/Pulldowns
  • Shoulder Press
Isolation Exercises

On the other hand, single-joint exercises recruit muscles that don’t get overloaded during compound movements. For example, the triceps are involved in the bench press. But they don’t get activated enough to stimulate significant hypertrophy.

Therefore, it’s necessary to work these secondary muscles with more targeted exercises. Here are some examples of isolation exercises:

  • Bicep Curls
  • Tricep Extensions
  • Leg Extensions & Curls
  • Lateral Raises
  • Chest Flys
  • Lat Pullovers

Tempo

During an exercise, you generally lower and raise the weight. These are also called the eccentric (negative) and concentric (positive) phases.

The speed at which you move the weight during those phases is called tempo. And it is usually defined by the number of seconds it takes to complete the movement.

Tempo can be slow (>3 seconds), moderate (1-3 seconds), or fast (<1 second). The movement speed also corresponds to the number and type of muscle fibers recruited.

While the studies are mixed, most agree that a moderate tempo is best for muscle hypertrophy1. With a slower eccentric followed by a moderate to fast concentric phase.

In practical terms, that means a 2-4 second negative and a 1-2 second positive. Also, you can vary tempo within these ranges to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible during a workout.

Technique

Hypertrophy training is about more than just how much weight you lift – it’s also about how you lift the weight. In other words, it’s not blindly moving as much weight as possible from point A to point B.

Instead, you need to control the load in order to activate the target muscles. This means you lift the weight deliberately without excessive momentum. And you move through the entire range of motion whenever possible.

In addition, you should think about contracting the target muscle. This is called the mind muscle connection. While it may sound like philosophical nonsense, research shows that it activates more muscle fibers9.

Training To Failure

Muscular failure is the point in a set when you physically can’t perform another rep. This occurs when there is no more muscle energy and you need to rest in order to continue.

The reason training to failure can be a good thing is that your body recruits more muscle fibers as you fatigue. And there are studies suggesting this has benefits for increasing hypertrophy, especially in advanced lifters10.

Although, as with other factors that increase the workload, it should be used to an extent that doesn’t lead to overtraining. In other words, not every single set needs to be to failure. And you should consider using it in a periodized manner.

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Hypertrophy Training Program

To recap, there are 10 training variables that you can adjust to maximize hypertrophy and muscle growth. Below are the ideal targets for each variable as part of a hypertrophy training program.

  • Lift heavy weights (70-90% of your one-rep max)
  • Aim to get 6-12 reps on most sets
  • Perform a total of 24-32 sets per workout
  • With this rep/set combination, your workouts should last 45-75 minutes
  • Train one or two muscle groups per workout, 5-6 days per week
  • Rest for 90-120 seconds between most sets
  • Perform a combination compound and isolation exercises
  • Use a tempo of 2-4 seconds on the negative and 1-2 seconds on the positive
  • Control the weight, minimize momentum, and use the full range of motion
  • Train to failure during phases when your goal is maximum hypertrophy

Conclusion

Now you know you can simply adjust these 10 training variables to make your workouts more efficient. By following this hypertrophy training program, you will optimize your workouts for muscle growth.

Of course, your workouts will be more effective if you also follow a proper nutrition plan. For muscle gain, you need a calorie surplus, plenty of protein, and healthy meals at the right times.

To learn more about the training and nutritional aspects of muscle growth, check out these related articles below!

References
1) Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-2872.
2) Vandenburgh, HERMAN H. “Motion into mass: how does tension stimulate muscle growth?.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 19.5 Suppl (1987): S142-9.
3) Toigo, Marco, and Urs Boutellier. “New fundamental resistance exercise determinants of molecular and cellular muscle adaptations.” European journal of applied physiology 97.6 (2006): 643-663.
4) Goto, K. A. Z. U. S. H. I. G. E., et al. “The impact of metabolic stress on hormonal responses and muscular adaptations.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 37.6 (2005): 955-963.
5) Krieger, James W. “Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.4 (2010): 1150-1159.
6) Smilios, Ilias, et al. “Hormonal responses after various resistance exercise protocols.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35.4 (2003): 644-654.
7) Giechaskiel, Barouch. “A Simple Creatine Kinase Model to Predict Recovery and Efficiency of Weight Lifting Programs.” Journal of Sports and Physical Education (2020): 38-45.
8) Willardson, Jeffrey M. “A brief review: factors affecting the length of the rest interval between resistance exercise sets.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 20.4 (2006): 978-984.
9) Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training.” European journal of applied physiology 116.3 (2016): 527-533.
10) Willardson, Jeffrey M. “The application of training to failure in periodized multiple-set resistance exercise programs.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21.2 (2007): 628.

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